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Faithful Doubting

Psalms 133 & 134 and John 20: 19 – 31
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Easter 2
15 April 2012

"Faith keeps many doubts in her pay. If I could not doubt,
I should not believe." ~ Henry David Thoreau

St Thomas has had a bit of a bad press over the years. Early in Christian history his name became synonymous with the word doubt. "Oh you doubting Thomas," one could say to someone who wouldn’t accepted at first sight some premise or belief. That association with Thomas and doubt comes from the story Lynette read this morning, where Thomas is told by the other disciples that they have seen the risen Jesus and in the true spirit of 21st century scepticism, Thomas says to his fellow disciples, "unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

Now most of us would think, that if that story had come from anywhere else other than the Bible, that that’s a fair thing to say. And if we think about it, for those of us in the 21st century it is in fact the only thing we can say. Our whole western thought and educational system is based upon enquiry, questioning and to a large measure, doubt. As the truly modern thinker, Henry David Thoreau said, "Faith keeps many doubts in her pay. If I could not doubt, I should not believe."

The Atheist and the Cardinal
I wonder if you saw the debate between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal Pell on Q&A on last Monday evening. I found it a rather unsatisfying experience. It reminded me of the story of the two women who would always argue with each other over the back fence and that could never agree on anything because they were both arguing from different premises!

In the debate on Monday night, what gave the atheist Dawkins the upper hand, and why he sounded more convincing than Cardinal Pell was that he was a thoroughly modern man. He is a rationalist and a materialist, "don’t believe anything that you can’t see, hear, touch or taste," or something like that. In the debate it was Pell’s continual appeal to authority - the authority of the Church - that really got up Dawkin’s nose. In the modern world - the age of reason - the world invented by Spinoza, John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton and Voltaire, the questions became as important as the answers and the answers could not be found anywhere else other than in the natural world; the world that we all inhabit and see and touch and taste every day.

To stay with that debate a little longer, Richard Dawkin’s catch cry was, "Don’t believe something just because an authority tells you; believe it because you can prove it yourself." Well that’s not quite so. There are plenty of things in this world that I accept on the trustworthy authority of others. I can question and ask questions but I often need to accept, dare I say, in faith, the truth of what others say. Perhaps were Dawkins is right is in the realm of religion where religious authorities say, "This is the way it is, thou shalt not question!" Peter Kennedy that retired Catholic priest in Brisbane once said to me that the religious authorities in his church expected the lay people to, "prayer, pay and obey!" and to do it without questioning.

The Experience of Faith

Thomas needed more than the story of other people’s experience. He needed the experience for himself. He needed to see with his own eyes and touch with his own hands the presence of the living Jesus. While some of the disciples may have been critical of him, I suspect most of us see that Thomas’ request was quite reasonable. But that’s because of the cosmic shifts that have occurred in our way of being in the world in the last 2,000 years. Hence someone like Thomas becomes for us a patron Saint, because he is one who experiences life in somewhat the same way we do.

Perhaps the most powerful thing here and it is pick up in the last part of John’s narrative is that Thomas wanted the experience of knowing that Jesus was alive. It’s that word experience that I think resinates with us. We live in an age of experience. In our spiritual lives we are often dissatisfied with just believing religious doctrines or beliefs. You probably see that in the way I preach or talk about my Christian faith. Last Sunday on Easter day I said, I am less interested in the how of the resurrection of Jesus, than I am in the "personal" experience of it. Has the life of Jesus risen in your life? Or how have you experienced resurrection today?" The experience of new life is more important than the religious beliefs about it. Now perhaps not everyone will agree with that.

So Thomas, in a rather obtuse way, becomes a mentor to those who do not just accept what other say, but desire to experience it for themselves. He’s a naughty illustration that picks up an aspect of that.

A Methodist, a Salvation Army member and a Presbyterian were together at a Pentecostal church service. As the preacher got more and more fired up, the Methodist said, Amen! The Salvationist, said Hallelujah! And the Presbyterian said, Point of Order!"

Oh dear this was once a Presbyterian Church, wasn’t it?

The best of religion today is experimental. And that doesn’t mean you have to be a Pentecostal. It means that our faith, our beliefs, those things that we value and hold dear are embraced with our whole being and not just accepted on the word of others or held exclusively in our minds. Harvey Cox in his recent book, The Future of Faith, suggests that the Christian Church has passed through three ages or periods. The first was the age of faith or trust in which the life and message of Jesus was embraced and lived into, as a transforming experience. The second was the age of belief when doubt was seen as the great enemy and was forcefully evicted from people’s minds and soul. And now, he suggests, we live in the emerging age of the spirit in which it is more important to be spiritual and cultivate an inner life, than it is to be religious.

Faithful Doubting

But remember the story of Thomas is an illustration of what I have call "faithful doubting," and Thomas’ request to touch Jesus could only be fulfilled for a very short period of time, as was shown later in the story. Jesus can come to the "doubting" Thomas and presented him with the evidence he wanted. John’s gospel Chapter 20:

A week later the disciples of Jesus were again in the house, and this time Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then Jesus said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."

Do not doubt. The New Testament word for doubt is διστάζω - distazo and it means "double-mindedness." The New Testament word for belief is πίστις - pistis and is most often best translated as faith, or trust. So the words John places on the lips of Jesus to Thomas are well translated "Don’t be double-minded but instead trust or have faith."

There is an important place in the Christian Faith for doubt. It is important because for us this is the way toward truth. If we too quickly accept the testimony of others and fail to hold the truth and ask questions of it, then we will be like the seed that:

fell on stony ground where there was not much earth; the seed immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up the seed was scorched, and because it had no roots it withered away. (Matthew 13:5-7)

But it is also important that Thomas isn’t seen as the patron Saint of sceptics. In fact, he was true to what he had experienced and when the evidence was passed before him he embraced with his heart and the truth that stood before him. He should be known for his confession, "My Lord and my God!" So in a significant way his path to faith had to wandered through the valley of "double-mindedness," of doubt and uncertainty and for us that is a good thing. But he did arrive at a place where he could stand. The encounter with Jesus was enough for him to confirm his trust in the life and message of Jesus and his place among the disciples.

I am sure I have quoted before the passage by Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke picks up this need in all of us to question and not run too fast toward the answers. He says:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

To live the questions is to be committed to "faithful doubting." And to allow the spirit and the heart to live into the answers we seek. Of course we don’t have to touch and see everything in order to believe or to live faithful lives; sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye. And within this story of Thomas is the recognition that the mere physical is not always necessary for faith.

And Jesus said to Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

So the experience we have in the spiritual life is not a "physical" encounter with Jesus, but rather an inner awareness, and opening of our hearts when we listen to the stories of faith and hope and love and then they become for us a pathway toward the truth of life. We don’t abandon our doubt or our uncertainty, that’s part of the way we find the truth. Rather we accept the old proverb that doubt is the beginning not the end of wisdom and as the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich said, doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one vital element of faith.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

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